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Sex is big business in Japan, with many well-known directors getting their start making adult movies of various sorts. And sex workers are frequently depicted in non-pornographic Japanese films, from the oiran (courtesans) of the Edo Period (1603-1868) to the call girls of the present, who work for deriheru (“delivery health”) agencies that dispatch them to love hotels like Uber Eats meals.

The realities of the latter job is a main theme of “Life: Untitled,” which director Kana Yamada based on her own stage play. This theme also appears in films by male directors, but Yamada’s approach is more blunt and raw than the genre norm, with the characters’ self-hatred boiling over into wounding words and violent deeds.

When “Life: Untitled” premiered in the Japanese Cinema Splash section of last year’s Tokyo International Film Festival, the critical reaction was divided, with some finding the film harsh and grating and others praising it as truthful and groundbreaking. I was in the latter camp, though I thought the story probably worked better on stage, where its broad emotional strokes play to the back rows, rather than the screen, where they can feel overwrought.

Life: Untitled (Taitoru Kyozetsu)
Rating
Run Time 98 min.
Language Japanese
Opens Nov. 13

The film’s protagonist and throaty-voiced narrator is Kanou (Sairi Ito), a sort of assistant manager at a deriheru agency, aptly named Crazy Bunny, which is run out of a shabby office where the sex workers kill time between jobs. Kanou was originally a call girl herself, but bailed on her first client, running from the hotel into the street in her underwear — and delivering the film’s opening monologue, in a funny yet disturbing scene.

Referring to her role in a childhood play about an Aesop’s fable, Kanou calls herself a tortoise doomed to lose life’s race to the more desirable hare. The hare, she says, is her “idol,” but a tortoise, she adds, “can become a main character.”

“Life: Untitled,” however, is an ensemble piece, with the Crazy Bunny staff all getting moments in the spotlight, from the irascible gangster-like manager (the single-named Hannya), who not-so-secretly regards his employees as trash, to the always smiling Mahiru (Yuri Tsunematsu), the agency’s top earner who sees all sex in transactional terms and fantasizes about blowing up Tokyo.

The film’s structure is episodic, with characters sketched in rather than fully developed. Nonetheless, some stand out, such as Shiho (the always excellent Reiko Kataoka), a mordant veteran of the sex trade who tells Kanou her current job is “better than rotting”; Atsuko (Aimi Satsukawa), a motor-mouthed, short-fused time bomb; and Kyoko (Kokoro Morita), whose self-abasing love for an irritable agency driver (Shunsuke Tanaka) is not as masochistic as it seems.

Sex itself, however, seldom appears, save for when another Crazy Bunny driver, Hagio (Dai Ikeda), earns extra cash as a male prostitute, servicing older women. Similar to the agency’s call girls, he despises his clients and his disgust shocks Kanou, who thought him to be the sensitive type.

She is not only out of sync with Hagio and her other co-workers, whose motives and actions she finds alien, but also ignorant of what being a tortoise in her small society of hares actually means. As she makes that shattering discovery and Mahiru, the most damaged of the hares, reaches her breaking point, the film hits its climax, its flaws forgotten for the moment and the pain of its characters front and center, and very real.

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